Communication Skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening by xld14276


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									       Communication Skills

(reading, writing, speaking, listening)

       Romana Cortese, Ph.D.
        Professor of English
        Thinking and Writing in the Art of Teaching Communication
                                 By Romana Cortese

     Stuck in a four-hour wait at an airport last fall, I was fuming at the needless mad
dash I had just made because of the misinformation of three airport personnel. The
delay of my connecting flight had been posted for some time, but I was sent to three
separate gates in what I was told was a seven-minute connection time. I thought the
final mad dash was going to be the very last one of my life, but neither the attendant at
the gate nor the one at the customer service desk who received my written and
detailed complaint showed that he cared. What we had here was, in the famous line
from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “a failure to communicate.”
    Ironically, as I leafed casually through the magazines I had gathered to read,
my attention was drawn to an article on communication in the National Review by
Tracy Lee Simmons, “‘Getting the Words Right:’ How to Teach—and Not
Teach—Writing,” in which the author bemoans the current pedagogical fads he
sees today about teaching writing, where sweat is replaced by feel-good goals.
“Good writing can only be taught prescriptively,” he says. It “involves learning rules
and usages; it entails heavy reading in models of clarity and grandeur; it requires
practice.” We must choose our words with care because careless word choice “is
bad manners” (49).
    And it leads to the wrong terminal, I thought.
     The ideal teachers of writing, Simmons continues, are foreign language
teachers. They are the only ones who can restore writing to the writing classroom
because most English teachers are more interested in the teaching of ideas, self-
expression, and “some have even bought the tripe of charlatans that grammar
cannot be taught, only absorbed” (50). I had finally found something to wile away
the time and to redirect my anger. My first reaction was indignation. I agree that
writing classrooms should teach good writing but I am skeptical that “prescriptive”
rules will produce the “correct and crisp use of language” that Simmons claims
they will. Also, I wondered how, despite all his talk of choosing the right word, he
had ended up with the abomination of “usages”!
      The article gave me something to think about all the way home and for
several days afterwards. When the New Yorker arrived a few days later, there
was another instance of “blame the English teacher”, Louis Menand, in a
review of Sin Boldly! Dr. Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper, tells us
that when he was a teacher, he “used to deduct half a grade for the misuse of
it’s. He, too, denigrates the work done in English classrooms by teachers,
“whose writing abilities were not necessarily greater than those of the average
sociology student” (92). Complaints about students’ poor communications skills
often come from individuals who are outside the profession or from former
teachers like Menand who, having taught for a short time, find themselves
overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid. It’s easier to look for more lucrative
positions rather than spend a lifetime correcting the possessive of it.
    Menand takes issue with Dr. Dave’s suggestion that a student’s essay must
undergo several drafts. This, he says, is like building a “skyscraper up . . . and
then … go[ing] back and …working on the foundations.” His suggestion, like
Simmons’ careful word choice, is “to set down one row of bricks, and, when that
row look[s] pretty sound, to put some mortar…on top of it and set down the next
row” (93-94).
      This is a vivid but misleading analogy. The truth of the matter is that building
up a text through multiple drafts has been around as long as the written word.
Far from being a waste of time, it seems to be a necessary part of the process by
which ideas are developed, shaped, organized and refined. The brink-and-mortar
analogy presupposes that writers, having first stopped off at their local Home
Depot, come to the writing task with all the building materials they need, and then
it’s just a matter of arranging things in a workmanlike manner. But in fact, the
appropriate critical thinking skills to make those important decisions of unity,
coherence, and style to produce grammatically clear, elegant prose are almost
never all there in the beginning. Writing is a dynamic, non-linear process where
what is written is often a stimulus for new ideas, and where, as in a voyage of
discovery, the writer begins at one point and may end up somewhere he or she
never intended.
     Simplistic formulas illustrate a superficial knowledge of the complex work that
is involved in the teaching of writing. Writing is part of communication that
includes the skills of listening, speaking, and reading. We’ve known for a long
time through the work of L. Flower, for example, that it is not grammar but
thinking that distinguishes the weak from the proficient student, and thinking
requires more than a set of grammatical rules. More recently, Linda Best’s
article, “The Nature of Developmental Writing: A Cognitive Explanation with
Practical Implications,” continues to support this position. The article summarizes
her original research in which she compared the thinking processes between a
group of developmental students and a group of first-year writing students. These
students were trained to speak out loud while composing their essays so that
data about the nature of composition could be collected and studied. What she
found is that as far as knowing what an essay needs to contain, “declarative
knowledge,” both developmental writers and freshman writers have the same
knowledge, but the developmental writers lack the ability to apply these rules.
They write “in a rote, decontextualized manner.” They know what they should do
but they don’t know how to do it. The freshman writers not only apply rules of
grammar, transitions, and punctuation, but also connect their writings to other
areas (Best).
     The difference between these two groups was even more striking at the level
of application, “procedural knowledge.” In an exercise that involved narrowing the
topic, the developmental writers listed topics randomly, had no clear strategies
for organization, applied rules of grammar and punctuation haphazardly without
showing correct relationships between sentences. The third level of knowledge
type, “metacognition,” shows the importance of having a positive view of one’s
abilities. When the students articulated how they felt toward their work, whether it
was successful or not, the developmental writers’ comments comprised only 22%
of the responses, but of these responses, 89% were negative; the freshman, on
the other hand, made most of the comments, 78%—and 94% of these were
positive. Best concludes that “instruction for weak writers focus on thinking skills,
offer students opportunities to discuss work in progress and explain the
strategies and skills they employ in their texts, and present grammar within the
context of meaningful prose, including a writer’s work.”
     All of the current research in communication stresses the importance of
writing in context, of teaching thinking skills, not just rules of grammar. At
Montgomery College our theoretical model is process writing, which we use in
the developmental through the first-year writing courses. Ours are computer-
based classrooms where students are taught and encouraged to use such writing
software as Daedalus and Inspiration for their invention and revision stages.
Most students come to us with serious writing deficiencies that persist even after
they take all of our courses, but this is not to say that students are not learning
and will not, in time, self-correct. Not being able to apply rules of grammar is not
as serious an issue as the self-doubt and insecurities students have about
communication. Taking into account the emotional life of these students and
establishing a good rapport are as important as the content of our discipline.
    The causes of students’ difficulties with communication are many and
complex. We are a visual and auditory culture, employing more and more
shortcuts with the spoken word in constructing meaning—which is precisely the
opposite of the discursive and amplifying nature of writing. It’s a laborious task to
bring students to the point of being willing scribblers. Our starting point has to be
relational. Research emphasizes the importance of the teacher-student
relationship in “affective learning,” which is defined as “students’ attitudes toward
content and the teacher” (Frymier and Houser 208). If this relationship is not
successful, students who are able to learn will not use the material
learned—which is to say that there is more to teaching than prescriptive content.
“Students look to teachers for more than information. Students want teachers to
help them feel good about themselves and feel in control of their environment.
This is consistent with students’ need to succeed in the classroom” (216).
     Montgomery College’s English Department offers students a varied and
dynamic program of course offerings in communication that targets students’
reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in a non-intimidating and non-
prescriptive context where creativity and thinking are emphasized. One part of
this program, the Thematic 1302 courses that students can take for their second
semester Composition and Rhetoric requirement, is representative of the
learning that occurs in and out of the classrooms.
     In addition to the regular Composition and Rhetoric, which is literature-based
writing, students have been able to choose from such courses as Writing about
Nature and the Environment, the Culture of Baseball, Food and Feasting in Art,
Literature and Film, Literature and the Visual Arts, Children’s Literature, Fairy
Tales and Folklore, Pop Culture, and Film. In the spring of 2002, Writing about
Mythology will be offered as well.
     In these thematic courses, writing, listening, speaking, and reading skills are
not discreet activities. Although listening is emphasized during a lecture on
content or theory, for example, students are more often required to employ
several communications skills at once. As the professor speaks, students take
notes. Often, the professor uses overhead transparencies or PowerPoint to
accompany the lecture to help students who are visual learners. Many professors
distribute handouts with the material already organized so that students can
listen and read while the professor speaks. In small-group work, where students
are asked to either analyze a text or retrieve information from a text, one member
of the group on a rotating basis listens to his or her peers, takes notes, and
summarizes the group’s discussion. In all of our classes students discuss their
work with their peers and suggest revisions. Although many students find this
peer-to-peer communication uncomfortable at first, by the end of the semester
they see it as a valuable aspect of their growth as writers. Collaboration
frequently leads to friendships and a keen sense of responsibility as they realize
that professors take their assessments of their peers’ papers seriously and that
their peers rely on their candid remarks to improve their papers. Students are
thus encouraged to listen to one another and to respect differences of opinion,
whether in small groups or as a class.
     Our multicultural texts reinforce the importance of different cultural
perspectives and provide opportunities for students to expand their knowledge
and increase their points of cultural reference—the hallmark of an educated
person. All professors require students to present in front of the class, using
either PowerPoint or other presentational methods. Students listen to the
presentations, ask questions of the presenter, and assess the content and oral
communications skills of the presenter. Supplementary videos, films, and tapes
of readings, music, and historical material reinforce the written texts and expose
students to additional listening opportunities. Guest speakers bring their personal
knowledge and connections with the field thus illustrating the practical application
of the theme of the course.
     Outside of the classroom, learning continues. The interview is another tool
used frequently to sharpen active listening. The process of preparing for an
interview (calling for an appointment and devising interview questions), and then
conducting an interview (asking questions and listening to the speaker’s
answers) train students in time management, professional courtesy, organization,
and interpersonal skills. The interview required in the museum assignment for
Writing about the Visual Arts asks students to interview the curator of any one of
the three major museums in Houston as a source for their research project. In
Writing about the Culture of Baseball, students go on a field trip to interview
members of the Astros organization. This year students will go to Round Rock to
interview Round Rock Express, Astros minor league team. Students also
participate in Montgomery College’s Arts Series. This semester, for example,
they visited and analyzed a solo exhibit of the work of Lynn Venier and then
listened to the professor’s analysis of the artist’s themes and methods. With the
works in front of them, students saw an immediate application of the theoretical
material presented as a lecture. In addition to reading poetry, students attend
poetry readings on campus, thus realizing the differences between listening and
reading in the same genre.
      Since the thematic 1302’s are primarily writing courses, the heaviest
emphasis is on writing skills. Here the ingenuity of the faculty in devising creative
and meaningful assignments is particularly noteworthy. Students keep daily or
weekly journals, compose essays using different rhetorical modes, write reviews
of films, books, and websites, write a research paper using the MLA style sheet,
practice writing fairytales, write personal memoirs, and various brief exercises
such as quick responses to class discussion, short paragraphs, or in-class
essays. Frequently, students engage in group discussions using the Daedalus
Interchange, a chat room where all of the students’ written comments are stored
for future reference. Although the approach in these courses varies from
professor to professor, the underlying pedagogical philosophy is to engage
students in a meaningful way that, it is hoped, will become a lifelong habit of
mind. Texts and life are integrated so as to show students that writing is not only
an academic activity, but also a personal and practical activity that can give them
additional insight into career choices. Academically, the essays require students
to organize, analyze, and assess various visual and verbal texts. In Writing about
Literature and the Visual Arts, for example, students read essays about “A Sense
of Place” in tandem with a PowerPoint presentation of Edward Hopper's
paintings, a video about The Woodlands as a planned community, and The
Woodlands’ marketing literature that consists of photo essays, newsletters, and
real estate brochures. Students study these texts to analyze purpose, audience,
themes, and hidden biases, and how these in turn affect content, structure, and
choice of media. This analysis leads to the formulation of aesthetic criteria that
are tested and refined throughout the semester. Students are then asked to write
a comparative paper using the aesthetic criteria developed in class and then
applying them to written and visual texts of their choice.
     In Writing about Fairy Tales and Folklore and Writing about Children’s
Literature, students write either a fairy tale or a children’s story. This exercise
enables them to consider the formal aspects of story telling—plot,
characterization, conflict, resolution, and message. The interdisciplinary
approach in these thematic courses forces students to think across the
disciplines not only to see connections, but also to list the differences that are
inherent in each discipline. When baseball is taught as “a living metaphor for
American culture” (Heckelman), students apply the analytical methods of one
discipline to understand the cultural significance of a national sport. If prior to
taking the course they saw baseball solely as entertainment, students come
away with a road map to their own history and identity, using the tools of literary
    Reading texts, whether they are printed, visual, or performance texts, is an
integral aspect of the thematic 1302 courses. The varied content of these
courses offers students choice. They fulfill a requirement and enjoy doing it, thus
increasing the likelihood that they will want to learn. In these courses students
read for comprehension and retention, but they are also trained to apply various
critical methods such as Formalist, Feminist, Psychoanalytical, Sociological, or
Marxist to see how different critical approaches extract different readings from
the same material. Students learn that texts have many levels of validity and that
meaning is a construct dependent as much on the text as it is on the reader of
the text. In Writing about Fairy Tales and Folklore and Writing about Children’s
Literature, students read different versions and current revisions of the same
story thus gaining an insight into both literary tradition and the pitfalls of “correct”
     In addition to the required reading materials, students must research and
read additional books and articles on a given topic. The research paper is an
exercise that combines many skills at once: setting goals and limits, managing
one’s time and resources, retrieving, analyzing, interpreting, and organizing
material, using appropriate tools, and creating a final product, which means using
the material for a practical end. Reading skills that are practiced here are surface
reading, skimming, and reading in depth. Students are encouraged to read
actively, to annotate a text, and to take notes. They must read for
comprehension, make connections, assess the relevance of a text for their topic,
interpret texts, choose supporting materials that are then reorganized and
discussed in the context of their chosen topic in order to create another
meaningful whole.
    Finally, students are given opportunities to hone their speaking skills. Most
professors require that students use the researched material and present it to the
class, usually in PowerPoint presentation. By the end of the semester, the small
group and class discussions, the nurturing and positive environment, together
with students’ familiarity with their researched topic, have created the kind of self-
confidence that in many cases results in an excellent presentation.
     We must, if we are to succeed, replace the negative self-appraisals that most
students labor under with encouragement and positive thinking. Several students
from the 1302 thematics went on to present their papers at the Montgomery
College CAC (Communicating Across the Curriculum) Conference in the fall of
2000. One student gave an excellent presentation on the ogre in Japanese
literature while another talked about his first visit to a fine arts museum and the
life-changing effect that it had on him. Their degree of comfort before a large
audience varied, but all of them volunteered because their professors had
confidence in their success.
     Students are allowed considerable freedom within the limits of the course.
Many professors use Portfolio assessment. The Portfolio places the responsibility
for learning on the students who must set goals, remain engaged with their work
on a semester-long basis, revising as they learn new material, making choices of
organization, presentation, and content. Students have conferences with their
professors on their progress, and these are usually productive speaking
opportunities. In Writing about Literature and the Visual Arts students are given a
handout that lists all of the elements required to prepare for their oral
presentations at the conference. They are asked to explain how their work
specifically meets the standards outlined in the syllabus. These conferences are
also bonding opportunities where student and professor come to see one another
as partners with a common mission—the success of the student.
    In the end, teaching communication skills is not about teaching grammar
exclusively. I don’t mean to make light of students’ writing deficiencies, or
suggest that correcting deficiencies is not important, but this kind of work is best
done in a pedagogical context that stresses thinking first. It’s very possible to
have a text that is perfectly correct mechanically, and yet it’s worthless for what it
says. Instructive in this regard is the American poet, Emily Dickinson, who,
among other deficiencies, did not know the difference between “it” and “it’s,” and
yet became one of the greatest poets in the English language.

                                    Works Cited

Best, Linda. “The Nature of Developmental Writing: A Cognitive Explanation with
       Practical Implications.” Research and Teaching in Developmental Writing.
       13.1 (1996) 7 pages. 8 Aug. 2000

Frymier, Ann Bainbridge and Marian L. Houser. “The Teacher-Student Relationship
      as an Interpersonal Relationship.” Communication Education 49 (2000): 207-

Heckelman, Ron. “Re: White Paper on Special Topics.” E-mail to Romana Cortese.
      16 Feb. 2001.

Menand, Louis. “Comp Time: Is College Too Late to Learn How to Write?” New
     Yorker 11 Sept. 2000: 92-94.

Simmons, Trace Lee. “ ‘Getting the Words Right:’ How to Teach—and not Teach—
     Writing.” National Review 11 Sept. 2000: 49-50.

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